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Nine Lives

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©2014, Aaron Elson


The Provost Marshal

Clifford Merrill, 712th Tank Battalion

(c) 12014, Aaron Elson

Page 2

    Aaron Elson: Tell me a little bit about Ed Forrest. You knew him well?

    Cliff Merrill: Oh, yes. Ed had worked in a bank, and to look at Ed youíd think immediately, if you said bank youíd say, yeah, thatís a typical bank teller. He was quiet. Quiet courage. Never raised his voice. Got along remarkably well with his men. [Reuben] Goldstein was one of his men. I thought Ed was the best we had, of course I didnít tell anybody, I didnít even tell him. But he impressed me as being the best. Always giving, never asking for himself. I think he was hit by one lonesome plane up there, dropped a bomb, and got him. Near the final days. That hurt me more than anything, because, being wounded and reading all the papers and getting letters, a lot of letters from my first sergeant, Iíve still got them. He told me all about who was wounded and this and that. The way he got around the censors, the first man to be killed was a lieutenant, George Tarr. Heíd say so-and-so joined Tarrís platoon. He couldnít come out and say somebody got killed. He couldnít mail that information home. Theyíd cut the stuff out, or black it out, but they usually cut the letters.

    Aaron Elson: When George Tarr was killed, what were the circumstances?

    Cliff Merrill: Well, we were just going in, this was our first engagement. Iím not sure of the date. But we were going down this hill. The Krauts had been shelling in this area periodically, interdiction fire I guess youíd call it. And then something happened, George got down off his tank for some reason, I donít know why, I wasnít talking to him then over the radio. He was curious about something I guess. But he didnít get down all the way. A shell hit when he was on the deck and knocked him down, and then another shell went close to him. He just had a brand new baby. Little boy. And I couldnít write that letter. I think I let Ellsworth Howard take care of it, or maybe Vinson did, because I knew him well. Nice guy. Methodical. Kind of slow. But heíd do anything you told him. Do anything for you. In fact, Ellsworth Howard and I were talking about George the other day. We commented about a train ride from Fort Jackson up to [Camp] Myles Standish, when we had old George all excited about keeping track of the troops. We said, "George, go count noses." Howard, have you met him? His nickname was the Gremlin. Heís a real needler that guy, still is, but he was worse then. And heíd say, "George. Get up there and count noses." And George said, "Well, I did that just about an hour ago."

    He said, "Yeah, but you know, weíre going to combat, you never know when one of these guys might just take it into his head and jump off this train." We wanted to get him doing something. We didnít want him worrying about his kid, his wife, you know.

    "Okay." Heíd go out mumbling, and count noses. But he got it organized, he got it down by car, how many in each car. Oh, Lord, I laughed about that. I didnít interfere. Because Ellsworth Howard was the executive officer, let him go ahead, heíd take care of things for me. I can still hear him, "George, go count noses."

    This stuff bothers you, you know. And the reaction is later, not then. You donít have time to think about it, but later I had nightmares, Iím telling you. God, Iíve killed this Kraut a hundred times, for example. Each time heíd come a little closer.

    Aaron Elson: Tell me more about the nightmares.

    Cliff Merrill: I donít know how they come on really, but all of a sudden, I still get them. Itís a good thing we have a queen-size bed and Iím over on one side, way over, and sheís over on the other, and if I start slugging, why, I miss her. I havenít hit her yet.

    Jan Merrill (Cliff's wife): The one in Vietnam is the one that he keeps shooting. I think thatís the one he shoots the most.

    Cliff Merrill: You do have them, thereís no question. I donít know why.

    Aaron Elson: I guess itís not unusual.

    Cliff Merrill: You sweat. Oh, Lord. Youíd be surprised how much they shake you up. Then you donít get any sleep. I donít sleep much. If I go to bed at 10 oíclock, at 1:30 Iím awake. I might get another hourís sleep. Not much more than that.

    Aaron Elson: How old are you now?

    Cliff Merrill: Seventy-seven. Almost 78.

    Aaron Elson: Did you ever counsel younger soldiers, who had gone through the same thing? Did you ever talk to them about it?

    Cliff Merrill: I havenít, the only counseling, you see, I called it guidance. The troops I had under me, thatís the only ones Iíd give guidance to. And I always told them, "Now, I have to give you a little guidance, but donít forget, that guidance takes several forms. Sometimes itís just a tap on the shoulder and sometimes itís a direct kick in the ass." So, thatís guidance. I tried to make a joke out of stuff like that. I wasnít dead serious about a lot of things. For example, General Seaman, the commanding general of the 1st Infantry Division, I told him, "Iíll get the job done because Iím pretty mean."

    He said, "Youíre not mean. You just look mean."

    I said, "Well, Iíll get the job done.

- - - -

    Cliff Merrill: I went back to Germany after Iíd been to Korea, in í56. We landed in Le Havre, and went on these cars, they called them 40 and 8s. We figured if they could put eight mules in there they put 40 men in. Boxcars. Cold, miserable. And the trip across, there was a bunch of, oh, humorous as could be things that those GIs did, and I tried to help them along, too. For example, we had no heat in the cars. We stopped where there was a crossing, and the crossing guard had a little shack and a stovepipe, you could see there was a fire, thereís smoke coming out of it. Two GIs went out there, and I donít know as they paid for that stove or not. But here they come running, stove and pipe and the works. The fire still in it. Got that up in the box car, and got it in operation. And we got coal every time we stopped. Weíd stop in every damn railroad yard between there and Germany, and theyíd load up with coal. They were warm in that car. But it was cold, God. People were real sick from the cold. That was one humorous incident, of course there were others. We had extra passengers appear every once in a while. Females. Get a couple of females in a boxcar with forty men, why, itíll get warmer, you know.

- - - -

    Aaron Elson: How often would Sergeant Vinson write to you when you were in the hospital?

    Cliff Merrill: Oh, I really donít remember how often. Theyíre not too many. Half a dozen or so that he wrote. And heíd tell me who was gone, whoíd got killed. The first man killed was Lieutenant Tarr, and heíd say, "So and so joined Tarrís platoon."

    Aaron Elson: Why was it that the censors wouldnít allow that?

    Cliff Merrill: That was just the policy. They didnít want discussion about casualties or places you were going. Initially we tried to figure out a way, from Point A, "Weíre 200 miles north of Point A," but they wouldnít accept that either. They figured out what Point A was after a while. And there was no way of getting by with that, so we didnít try it anymore. Theyíd cut it out and tell us not to do it. But in each unit, of course, you had to censor your own. The lieutenants, for example, had the job of censorship of their own men. And in my case I had to review some of that stuff, but hell, I wasnít able to check up on all that, I was busy. I was out on the line all the time. Iíd leave that to Ellsworth Howard, to worry about that stuff. But Charlie Vinson was one hell of a good first sergeant, and he took care of a lot of things like that. A real good man.

    Aaron Elson: Charlie Vinson, the first reunion I went to in Niagara Falls [in 1987], told me that he used to keep a pair of socks in his helmet, to keep them dry.

    Cliff Merrill: Absolutely. Kept your head warm, too, in the wintertime. Yeah. You had to.

- - - -

    Aaron Elson: Tell me once again the story about Omar Bradleyís wife.

    Cliff Merrill: With the dog?

    Aaron Elson: With the dog.

    Cliff Merrill: Well, Mrs. Bradley was rather an eccentric type. When I took the job as the     provost marshal in Fort Myers, Virginia, one of the first tidbits of information was that Mrs. Bradley was to be handled with kid gloves. Well, one day she called the office and the provost sergeant answered the phone, and he handed me the phone quick. He said, "Itís Mrs. Bradley."

    She she said, "Major. Thereís a great big dog jumping on my little dog."

    I thought for a moment. I said, "Is that little dog a female?"

    "Yes. But sheís been spayed."

    And I thought, gee, this is a tough one. I said, "Yeah, Mrs. Bradley. No doubt the dogís been spayed, but you know that big dog doesnít know that."

    She cackled, and said "Youíre pretty smart."

    I said, "Iíll come right over and handle it personally."

    When I went over the dog was gone, of course. But she invited me in to have a Coke. I got along well with her.

    Aaron Elson: And then when she was speeding around the...

    Cliff Merrill: Oh yeah, she drove pretty fast, had a kind of a car that looked like an old, what the hell make of a car was that, it wasnít a Reo, it looked like an old Essex, I donít know what make of car it was. Anyway, she made the turn around the post exchange building and the car leaned over, it went on two wheels. The MPs were behind her. She was really moving out fast. She called me and said the MPs were harassing her.

    "No," I said. "They reported it to me and told me about it. They thought there was something wrong with your car, and they didnít know but they might have to render assistance."

    "Ohhh." No more said.

    We had, even among kids, rank was considered. I caught three of those little kids one day, one was a chaplainís son, another one was General Parkís son, and another generalís, no a full colonelís son. They had somebodyís hunting bow, and hunting arrows, and they were trying to play William Tell.

    The chaplainís son was junior, of course, he had to hold the target. And the others were trying to shoot the bow and arrow.

    I put a stop to that. In fact, in the course of doing it, one of those arrows hit them across the ass. That didnít go over good with Mrs. Park.

    Aaron Elson: It hit the chaplainís son?

    Cliff Merrill: I hit íem all. I spanked, "chtttt" "Now get the hell out of here. Donít ever do this again."

    General Park didnít know about it at the time but Mrs. Park, she called me. She read me up and down. "This is Mrs. Park."

    I said, "How are you today, Maíam?"

    "Donít Maíam me! Thatís my son you struck."

    "Oh," I said. "That wasnít anything. It was just a reminder to him that he shouldnít be playing with dangerous things like bows and arrows that are steel-tipped." That toned her down a little but not enough to suit me. I didnít say anything further, but she told General Park.

    General Park called me. He said, "I understand you had occasion to strike my son with an arrow."

    I said, "I certainly did, Sir."

    He said, "How did it happen?"

    I told him.

    He said, "Good. Now Iím gonna whip his ass in good shape."

    Aaron Elson: As the provost marshal, what were your duties?

    Cliff Merrill: Oh, just the chief of police. Discipline, law and order were the general terms. Anything goes wrong, call the provost marshal. I got calls all the time of the day and night. Iíd say "Call the office. The MPs are well-organized, they know how to handle these things." As long as it wasnít Mrs. Bradley.

    But I didnít give a damn then. Understand, at Fort Myers, there were 23 generals. And that meant there were 23 general officersí wives. That was the problem. Keeping everybody happy.

    Aaron Elson: And what year was that?

    Cliff Merrill: This was in 1950.

    Aaron Elson: Was that during the Korean War?

    Cliff Merrill: Just the beginning of it. It had started. Because I went to Korea in í52. From Fort Myers I went officers career course, and then I went to Korea.

    Aaron Elson: About how old were you at that time? Thatís 42 years ago.

    Cliff Merrill: In 1950 I was 36. I was born in í14. What did you want to talk about, Korea?

    Aaron Elson: Just briefly. What was it like in Korea?

    Cliff Merrill: Well, Iíll say this for it. You could smell it twenty miles out to sea, coming in.

    Aaron Elson: That must have been terrible.

    Cliff Merrill: I donít think theyíve changed a hell of a lot yet. In spite of the fact that they had the Olympics.

    Aaron Elson: But I mean about the Korean War, that was just an awful situation.

    Cliff Merrill: The part I got in on was handling the PWs. In Kojido and then on the mainland, too. On the mainland I had non-communists, anti-communists. They were friendly. But not in Kojido, they were very unfriendly. It was quite obvious in Korea that the prisoners were pretty well organized. They had an organized resistance, and they had a plan to discredit us because our own, we were our own worst enemy, really. Everybody got shook over what the newspapers were gonna say. Nobody had the guts to kick the damn reporters out of the way. Really. I didnít like them. Same situation in Vietnam. Anyway, to put down a riot, there were no guidelines as to what was a reasonable amount of force. Well, what is a reasonable amount of force when youíre faced with ten to twenty thousand screaming meemies trying to crash a fence. What should you do? Let them run over you? You have to, if youíve got a machine gun you have to use it. And if you donít, what we didnít realize maybe is you could shoot one in the face, that discouraged them. If you shoot them in the torso, it didnít bother them that much. But the disfigurement factor would stop them quicker than anything else.

    Aaron Elson: Is that a cultural thing?

    Cliff Merrill: I donít know what it was. But any way that would cause them to discredit their, change them from looking like a conquering hero, you might say, to a common thug, I think that was part of their philosophy. There was one battalion commander, a North Korean, Li Hai Ku was his name. And he surrendered. He surrendered his men. But I think, I really believe that was a planned thing to come into the PW camps and there theyíd organize riots and so forth. They were successful for a while until we finally identified the leaders, Li Hai Ku among them. Isolated them. Put them in solitary, and so forth. Then things quieted down a bit. Their leadership was gone. But on the transfer, what they called the Big Switch operation, we had to watch, theyíd try to riot and upset our schedule. We were moving up trainloads of them and moving back our people who were turned over. We didnít get as many, of course. Theirs went up in the thousands, and the returnees from our side were only in the hundreds, by comparison. I think that was their plan, to disrupt things. They ruined everything they could. They cut up the seats, broke the windows in the railroad cars. Weíd transport them from the train station at, I have to think a minute for the name of that siding where we transferred, it wasnít Munsonee, Munsonee was our base camp. Kesan was a base camp for the Koreans. They met at Panmumjon but prior to that, I think we called that, I believe itís Freedom Station, Iím not sure. But itís across the Nektong River, the north side of the Nektong. I think they called it Freedom Station. There we transferred them to trucks. In the meantime, weíd given them new uniforms, new combat boots. Everything brand new. Toilet articles. Really stupid. But you canít criticize your seniors. But anyway, on the way to near Panmumjon they dismounted from the trucks but prior to getting there, theyíd cut all the canvas off the trucks, ruin everything they could, and each time somebody would give us an order to put new canvas on. We had a major general in charge, and I asked him, "Whatís the sense of putting canvas? These damn idiots donít appreciate it, and theyíre gonna cut them up."

    "Thatís what we have to do."

    So I thought that was rather stupid. After a while they saw it was going to be pretty expensive, and theyíd take a whole trainload of people, I forget now how many, but three or four thousand, on trucks. And the way we transported them was there are seats on the side, two and a half ton trucks with a bench in the middle, theyíd straddle that bench. And I forget now, but I think it was forty or more they put on each truck. If they carried GIs it was only 18 to 20 people, but with them we could double it. And the way youíd do that, youíd get all you could get in, the driver would start the truck, and slam the brakes. At that time you could throw in another half-dozen. You learn things.

    Aaron Elson: Your position then was what?

    Cliff Merrill: At that point I was the operations officer at the Big Switch operation.

    Aaron Elson: And what was your rank at the time?

    Cliff Merrill: I was still a major. I made lieutenant colonel in í54.

    Aaron Elson: And what were you when you retired?

    Cliff Merrill: A full colonel.

    Aaron Elson: How did you wind up in Vietnam?

    Cliff Merrill: I was with the 1st Infantry Division, I was a provost marshal, and we were at Fort Riley, Kansas. Orders came down, of course we knew where we were going, we went from Fort Riley by bus to Topeka, Kansas, where we boarded planes that flew us to the West Coast. And then on the West Coast we transferred to bigger planes. The plane I was in had most of the division staff, and two jeeps on board the plane, it was a big four-engine plane. And we flew to Guam, Okinawa, and then into Vietnam.

    Aaron Elson: Was this towards the beginning or the end of the war?

    Cliff Merrill: The beginning. We were the first combat troops of the Army to get in there. I think the Marines had landed up near Hue.

    Aaron Elson: So this was what, about 1968?

    Cliff Merrill: Oh no, this was í65 I believe. í65 or í66. í65, because I came back in í66. I didnít last too long. Seven or eight months.

    Aaron Elson: And your position there was?

    Cliff Merrill: I was provost marshall initially for the 1st Infantry Division. Then the commanding general moved to corps and took me with him, and I became the corps provost marshal, which was a bigger job but I actually didnít do as much as I did before.

    Aaron Elson: And how did you come into a combat situation?

    Cliff Merrill: Combat was everywhere. There were no rigid front lines. You could become a casualty in the middle of any town. I had highway security, amongst other jobs. I had men who were out on the road all the time, subjected to all kinds of things, land mines were a common occurrence. Daily occurrence really, and we lost troops that way. The way I got hit was, we were in a convoy, I was leading the convoy. I always went out in advance, we had to go over the highway to see what it looked like, and you could sense, youíd go over these highways, dirt roads is all they were, and I was testing to see if I could draw fire or what, it didnít make any difference, because we were moving right along. We were well-armed. I had machine guns, and a 75-millimeter recoilless rifle, it takes a shell about two feet long. We had, this was an 1,800-head convoy.

    Aaron Elson: 1,800 vehicles?

    Cliff Merrill: Yeah. We were going up to the Michelin plantation. They had troops going in, we were initial support stuff, supplies, you couldnít fly everything in. They had built an airstrip in the Michelin plantation,but some planes couldnít get in there. Some of the heavy stuff had to be hauled overland, and thatís what we were doing. In the convoy was troops, tanker trucks, food, ammunition trucks. And there were three explosions behind my jeep. I thought they were mortar shells. But they werenít. They were land mines.

    So I knew the jeep had got hit. I didnít realize I had. See, I didnít wear a vest. I sat on it. To protect the family jewels. We stopped, and I told my driver, "That guy was shooting at us," those mines. "Those were not mortar shells." So I gave a halt to the convoy, and I was looking around on the hillside, it wasnít steep, it was just rising ground, really. I told the driver to get on the machine gun and Iíll go look. I had hand grenades and a little snubnose .38, thatís all the weapons I figured Iíd get by with. So I went up this hillside. Through my glasses I could see this change in the contour of the terrain, a little hump. And I went up there, and hell, there was this well-concealed cover for a hole in the ground. I kicked that cover off, and this old guy gave me the Buddhist salute and when he did I shot him through the top of the head. But he had aiming stakes, three sets of them, he set off three mines. And he was the one. He was too old, his reflexes were not too good, thatís why he didnít get us. He was an old guy. Thatís the way they did it, theyíd have a stake here, a stake here, in his case he had three. Youíd line these things up, eyeball, then when something comes along, you touch your wires, move over to the next one, touch your wires, and so forth. Simple. Crude. But very effective.

    See, my people were some of the first ones in the division to get killed, and I didnít have any, it didnít bother me to kill him. If there had been more of them Iíd have been happier to kill them all. I got rid of him.

    Aaron Elson: Understandably. At that time you were hit already?

    Cliff Merrill: Yeah, in the upper spine. Little tiny pieces. Nothing showed. Like a faint scratch. I didnít feel anything much. About two or three weeks afterward, my left arm started getting numb. I thought it was a heart attack, you hear all kinds of things. I didnít figure I was a candidate for a heart attack, I was always rugged and healthy and all. So I went to the medics and they X-rayed me, and said "We canít help you here, but get your things together, youíre going back tomorrow."

    Thatís how I was evacuated. Back to Walter Reed. And they didnít operate on me either. They said, letís wait and see what happens. It got a little better, the numbness was not as pronounced, but I ended up having to be operated on, a very extensive type operation. I lost the use of the arm, the arm isnít good yet. It never did come back all the way. And thatís how I ended my war career.

    Aaron Elson: You were no kid then. You must have been in your forties?

    Cliff Merrill: Oh yeah, I was 55 when I retired. I retired in í69. But I was batted around, I tried to come back on duty, and went to Fort Dix. I was down there about six, seven months. I couldnít cut it. And they kicked me out. Unfit for service.

    Aaron Elson: I know youíre very modest about this, but what medals did you get?

    Cliff Merrill: Oh, I didnít get many medals. I got the Bronze Star three times I think. Yeah. I didnít worry about medals. One general described it, he said, "You donít toot your horn."

    I said, "I figure I donít have to. The results speak for themselves." But a lot of guys tooted their horn, all they were interested in was glory for themselves. I was interested in my men, because I wanted to come back alive, and they were the ones who could see that I would get back alive. I didnít go for the medals.

    There was something, I thought of it last night, I didnít write it down. Oh yeah, after I got out of Walter Reed, the First Army commander was General Seaman, heíd gone from the First Division in Korea, field force commander, and went to Fort Mead, Maryland, he was the commanding general of the First Army, and he called me one day and asked me what I was going to do. I told him I guessed I was going to retire. He said, "I would like you to go down to Fort Dix for me, theyíve been having problems." The provost marshal there was not successful in keeping prisoners in line. They had a lot of prisoners, I guess over 1,500. The system was, in Europe, all the bad actors theyíd ship them there and hold them awhile pending trial or pending their being put out to places like Leavenworth, long-term, murderers and stuff like that. Real bad actors.

    Aaron Elson: Were these American soldiers?

    Cliff Merrill: Yeah. And they were kicking up, he didnít know how to handle it. So he asked me if Iíd go out and take care of it. I felt pretty good, but I wasnít exactly a hundred percent good. So they tested me, and found I could handle them all right, and they quit. I had an MP battalion there. But I would, I went in with a group of men. I told them how to do it. We used, we didnít use pickaxe handles, we used sledgehammer handles. Theyíre hickory, they donít break. You catch them in the face, it discourages them. What led up to this was the fact that these were old wooden barracks, two-story types, and in each barracks I had unarmed people. To maintain order. If they needed something, they could call, and weíd help them out. They dropped a footlocker on one of my kids. That caused me to take action. We went in. They tried all kinds of things. They tried to set a fire, and barricade the doors, but we were determined so we went in and operated on them a little bit. Knocked out some teeth and broke collarbones. A couple of them I guess they busted an arm or so. But we used a reasonable, I termed it a reasonable amount of force. No gunfire or anything like that. We didnít have any guns. We did have those sledgehammer handles. They were very effective, if you know how to use them. But we toned them down. Then this shoulder and arm got pretty bad, I probably did something wrong, Iíd already been operated on, this was in í68. So they sent me to the hospital, and I was in the hospital four or five months, taking treatment.

- - - -

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Contents                       Chapter 9, A Soldier's Life (coming soon)